Saturday, March 20, 2010

Book Review: Your Church is Too Small

Your Church is Too Small: Why Unity in Christ's Mission is Vital to the Future of the Church by John Armstrong

(Full disclosure: this is a pre-publication copy sent to us by Zondervan. I was grateful to read J.I. Packer's foreword online since its absence is an example of a variation from the final published form.)

Recently, while studying Ephesians chapter 4 in a women's group, the question arose: "How can what Paul says about the church being 'one body' be true when the church appears so fractured and divided, especially among different denominations and faith traditions?"

If you have ever struggled with this issue of unity in the visible church (or perhaps you have tried to avoid it!) then I would suggest Armstrong's book as a good starting place for discussion. The "smallness" to which Armstrong refers in his title is not about the size of the local congregation, but the narrow view of what the word "church" means. Mostly aimed at Protestants but encompassing the two other main streams of Christianity (Catholic and Orthodox), the book acts as a guide for how to think historically and Biblically about church unity.

One of the first things that struck me about this book is the personal investment of the author in this quest for unity in Christ's mission. This is not just a book of abstract theological ideas, but is grounded in Scriptural principles he lives out among Christians from various backgrounds. I found his own story mirrors my own in some ways, and appreciate that he comes from a tradition that has a high view of Scripture. Refreshingly, he seeks to restore balance between truth and unity, not favor one at the expense of the other. This is not some feel-good ecumenism of the last century, but one rooted and grounded in the historical creedal confessions of the early church.

The book is divided into three sections, covering the past (Armstrong's own personal journey and the church's historical unity), the present (where we are now and some of the reasons behind why we are so divided), and the future (some ideas on where the church is headed and a new paradigm of how we might get there). Each chapter ends with helpful questions that expand on and personalize his points rather than just rehashing them.

He begins by reminding the reader of the catholicity of the church --the quality of universality in which the church spans thousands of years and exists in all parts of the world. Sadly, this has been forgotten or ignored in many evangelical circles who believe their local, contemporary expression is the one "true" church.

According to Armstrong, the starting point for unity should be a return to classical definitions of Christianity (what has been called paleo-orthodoxy), especially as defined by the early confessions of the Nicene and Apostles' Creeds. By confessing "one holy and apostolic church," believers align themselves with the historic faith. In addition, reading the early church fathers reminds us that we face many of the same issues today, while their writings continually point us back to Scripture as the basis for unity. Another strength of the book is that it introduces the reader to theologians and thinkers from all three major Christuan traditions.

Armstrong also brings up the important concept that the story of Scripture is not an individualized narrative. He writes: "Jesus' primary purpose for coming into the world was not to save us and then take us to heaven; his central mission was to manifest the reign of God over all creation." Until recently this was a very new concept to me, but the author almost takes it for granted that it will be widely accepted. Though it has been covered by others, I think might need a bit more emphasis here since it undergirds many of his points about the kingdom of God.

This is not a book about creating boundaries or drawing lines in the sand, but it seemed more could be said about dealing with error and false teachers. He does discuss the ancienty heresy of Gnosticism and how the early church responded. But how are we to respond when cults or other groups outside the historic faith seek to join in with missional efforts of local churches? Such situations call for much wisdom and prayer, but even so, some more guidance in this area might have been helpful.

Overall, I think there is much to praise in this book and would recommend it to anyone who seeks to work harmoniously with other Christians. What I appreciate most about Armstrong's book is that it is not intended to be a 5 step "this is how to achieve unity" type of work; instead, this book is a platform on how to begin thinking about ways we can reach out to other Christ-followers in our community. Unity of the body is first and foremost a relational unity among individual believers, not a coming together merely of different organizations or representatives. We must actively learn and grow together, knowing Christ and making him known through an honest, Spirit-led desire to work toward unity among different faith traditions who share the common creedal beliefs.

If you would like more information about the book or would like to order a copy of your own, please visit the book's official website: Your Church is Too Small.


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